Jurors say ‘gay conversion’ group defrauded clients
After just two-and-a-half hours of deliberations, six Hudson County jurors awarded $72,400 on June 25 to three religious men — two of them Orthodox Jews — who claimed they were defrauded by a Jersey City-based organization that said it could “cure” them of their homosexuality.
The jury sided with their allegation that the organization — JONAH, originally named Jews Offering New Alternatives for Healing — engaged in “unconscionable commercial practice” under NJ law by claiming that same-sex attractions can be reduced or eliminated through therapy.
Plaintiffs Chaim Levin and Benjamin Unger — both formerly Orthodox Jews — a Mormon named Michael Ferguson, and the mothers of Levin and another client, Sheldon Bruck, sued the group under a tough NJ consumer protection statute. Because Bruck was only 17, he was not permitted to be a party to the suit.
The codirectors of JONAH — Arthur Goldberg and Elaine Berk — and a consultant and fellow defendant, Alan Downing, argued that one-third of the clients they worked with since 1999 have overcome same-sex attractions. They argued that homosexuality was a “disorder” that could be overcome with an amalgam of religious and scientific techniques, although they acknowledged that none of their staff was a licensed psychiatrist, social worker, or therapist.
The jury heard testimony from a former president of the American Psychiatric Association, Dr. Carol Bernstein, who said that “generally, it is unethical to engage in gay conversion and reparative therapies because of the potential of harm to patients.”
One juror who spoke with the media after the verdict said, “The defense just wasn't there. [The type of therapy] just wasn't right. It's just not something that's therapy. Mr. Goldberg was a salesman. He lured them in, and they were very weak and vulnerable, and he took them from there…. It was pretty cut and dried.”
Reacting to the verdict, Charles LiMandri, chief of the defense team, said “they hope to be able to rectify this injustice on appeal.”
LiMandri is president and chief counsel of the California-based Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund, a public interest group that takes cases consistent with its “family values” philosophy.
As the defeated party, the defense will be compelled to pay three times the amount the plaintiffs filed suit for and compensate the plaintiffs’ attorney for all legal fees associated with the case.
This story was prepared with the assistance of Hella Winston of the New York Jewish Week.